For the first time in 135 games in a series dating back to 1937, both Baylor and Texas Tech will be ranked in the Top 25 when they open Big 12 play at 7 p.m. Friday at United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock.
Though the No. 18 Bears and No. 22 Red Raiders have enjoyed similar seasons, they’re vastly different teams.
Baylor (10-2) has gotten by with seven to eight healthy scholarship players in many of its games while Texas Tech (11-1) often uses a 10-man rotation.
That deep rotation has allowed the Red Raiders to play aggressive defense without worrying about getting into foul trouble.
“They play 10 people and they really try to cause chaos on the defensive end, similar to West Virginia without the full-court stuff, more in the half court,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “Tech is completely different than last year from the standpoint that last year it was a team defensively that was more compact and less aggressive.”
The Red Raiders have put together the stingiest defensive team in the Big 12 as opponents are averaging a league-low 58.7 points and shooting 35.9 percent from the field. Texas Tech has also been a solid rebounding team by averaging seven more boards than their opponents, ranking third in the Big 12 behind Baylor and TCU.
Guard Keenan Evans leads the Red Raiders with 16.5 points per game while guard Zhaire Smith is averaging 10.3 points and 4.1 rebounds and guard Jarrett Culver is averaging 10.2 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. Center Norense Odiase is averaging a team-high five rebounds.
With 10 players averaging 16 to 25 minutes per game, the Red Raiders aren’t putting up big individual numbers across the board. But they wear down opponents with their depth.
“They really run the floor, running the fast break,” said Baylor guard Manu Lecomte. “They’ve got very good players. Keenan Evans is a great guard. They’ve got a couple bigs and they’ve got shooters too. So we’re going to have to step it up defensively.”
Baylor senior forward Terry Maston won’t be ready for the Big 12 opener after missing the last six games with a broken right hand. The Bears have managed to win the last five games without Maston, including an 80-60 win over Southern in their last game on Dec. 20 at the Ferrell Center.
“He’s close, but he’s not there yet as far as playing to the level that you need him to play to win in the Big 12,” Drew said. “Each and every day it seems like we have someone else who will go out from a practice for something. Knock on wood, they’ve been short-term, and hopefully they continue to be short-term.”
Lecomte is having a tremendous senior year as he ranks second in the Big 12 with 18.4 points per game while shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range and 93.3 percent from the free throw line.
Baylor center Jo Lual-Acuil leads the Big 12 with a 10.0 rebounding average while hitting 15.1 points per game. Forward Nuni Omot has given Baylor’s offense a boost by averaging 11.2 points while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range.
Guard King McClure is averaging 11.7 points while freshman forward Tristan Clark is averaging 8.3 points and pulling down 6.1 rebounds per game.
Mixing man-to-man and zone defenses, Baylor has kept opponents guessing all season. The Bears have limited opponents to 66.2 points per game and a 39.8 shooting percentage.
“They’ve been running about half zone, half man,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. “So we’ll have to be ready to play against both. Within their zones, they run a lot of different kinds of actions, so really it’s based on their personnel. But we can’t spend the whole game trying to figure out what they’re in. We’ve got to spend the whole game trying to be aggressive and playing our game.”
With six Big 12 teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, Drew knows Friday’s opener is just the start of a grueling gauntlet of games that will last into March.
“This year, you go into conference, and there are no bad losses and only opportunities for good wins,” Drew said. “So that’s a great thing for resume building. As far as parity goes in the league, I bet if you asked every coach, they would tell you the same – we can win the league or we might be able to finish last. So it’s going to be one of those years where short-term memories are important.”